Friday, January 11, 2013

A Rant On Vendor-Librarian Relations

It's January 11th and we already have our first misguided, librarian-penned, article on libraries of 2013. In the spirit of the late, great Fire Joe Morgan, I'm going to break this one down. The article in question is "Six Mistakes the Library Staff Are Making," and you can read it here, though I'll heavily excerpt below.
What follows, then, is a combination of things boiled down into six points — the most commonly reported and (in my estimation) most important mistakes that library staff are making in their dealings with sales reps. 
1. Rudeness/unprofessionalism. Let’s begin with the most egregious and patently unacceptable of the mistakes listed here — rude and unprofessional behavior. Examples include: treating a sales rep or customer service staffer with discourtesy or derision; treating the rep like one’s personal therapist; unilaterally inviting a spouse or friend to a meal hosted by the rep; or failing to show up for appointments on time (or at all). 
Like the author, I will also plead guilty to the first instance of this category, though I suppose it's worth mentioning that as a conversation drags on, see item 2, below, the more frustrated I may become. I often, more than once a day, get cold calls from sales representatives who know nothing about this library, what library staff do, and the communities we serve. To the extent that one can do research ahead of time and recognize the milieu in which we find ourselves, which includes a consortium that may hamstring our ability to purchase materials, the more seriously a sales representative will be treated. Cold calling me to change our ILS is a nonstarter. Do your research.
2. Squandering one’s time with the rep. Wasting the rep’s time by forgetting a meeting or spending it on personal complaints falls under the category of rudeness and unprofessionalism, but squandering the time one has with the rep is a different matter. This is about failing to take into account the extremely limited opportunities that one has to work in-person with the sales rep, and consequently spending that time on activities that could and should have taken place before the meeting, or on conversations that could just as easily take place by email, or on issues that would be better addressed with a member of customer service staff.  
No. No no no no no no no. No. NO. I am not the one wasting time here. When I get cold called, my time is being wasted. There are two full-time staff here; I have better things to do than listen to a vendor try to sell me something. If I want something, I will initiate contact with a vendor. "But Jake, how do you know what's out there," you say. Well, dear vendor, that's what networking is for. That's what the internet is for. If I'm interested, I'll contact you. I'll come to your booth and take a pen and some candy (note: I will probably do this anyway). If I'm going to buy something from a vendor, there is no limit to the in-person opportunities. Seriously. We're working with a vendor right now on a Discovery platform. If I call this nameless vendor up right now, a representative will be in my office tomorrow. It's that easy. Vendors who don't provide this level of service are missing out. But I won't do that, because my time is precious, more precious than that of any vendor given our budget and level of staffing compared to theirs.

Similarly, after being given a five-minute version of an elevator speech, and on the phone it seems like an eternity, I don't really want to give a vendor feedback on their business model, as I'm often asked to do, or to recommend other libraries and/or library staff to be given the same sales pitch. If you'd like to hire me as a consultant, that's fine. I'll at least listen. But don't try to get that information for free.
3. Knee-jerk adversarialism and distrust. Many of my vendor-side informants bemoaned what they feel is a knee-jerk adversarialism on the part of many librarians and their staff. Now, some library-side readers will roll their eyes (“Of course our relationship is adversarial; you want our money, and we want what’s best for our patrons”), but the reps have a point. As rhetorically convenient as it might be to cast the library-vendor relationship as one of white hats vs. black hats, it should be obvious to any reflective person that the reality is far more complex than that. 
Based on what I've written above, I come across as adversarial. I understand that, and to the extent that I'm propagating that norm or stereotype, I'm sorry. But relations with vendors are often something like a power law. Ninety percent of my interactions with vendors are cold calls and solicitations. Yet those interactions do not take up anywhere near ninety percent of the time I spend with vendors. Rather, those ten percent of meetings, in person, on the phone, vie email, or otherwise, with sales representatives are fruitful, productive, and time-consuming. It is a disservice to many vendors to treat them with distrust, but there are also some who earn that, and they can earn it rather quickly if they don't do their research.
4. Failure to prepare for meetings. Before you meet with your sales rep, prepare an agenda. Send it to the rep ahead of time, and invite him or her to contribute to it. Know what will be discussed, prepare any documentation that will be needed in order for the meeting to be productive, and know what you hope to accomplish by the end of the meeting (as well as how you’ll know whether it was accomplished). If the rep provides spreadsheets, analyses, or specs ahead of time, you and your staff should read them beforehand so you’re not wasting time in the meeting trying to absorb the information they contain. 
Valid points, all. But I don't call meetings with vendors without doing this work, and I hope you, dear reader, don't either. It's sad that this needs to be said, and is even more sad that a librarian is the one saying it. As mentioned above, the majority of planning fails aren't on me, or library staff, they're on vendors who solicit having done no research on my library. It breeds distrust and adversity. 
5. Failure to prepare the ground for product consideration. One of the surest ways to waste both your time and that of your sales rep is to instigate trial access for a product that you know perfectly well you will never purchase, or for which it is not clear that there is real demand. Trials and pilot programs create work on both sides of the sales equation, and it’s important that the investment not be wasted. 
Confession, we have trialed products here knowing full well they would never be purchased or implemented. We've done it just to get vendors out of our hair, to show them that there's no demand. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that. I dispute that there's anything wasted by it. At the least, I add a link to the "Trials" section of the library website and email interested parties in the community we serve. I doubt this process has ever taken longer than five minutes.
6. Putting political library concerns above patron needs. I’ve saved for last the “mistake” that I know is likely to be the most controversial, but I think it must be said. Because the issue is so complicated, this will be a topic for a full post at a later date, but for now I’ll just say that it has long seemed to me (and comments from my vendor-side informants seem to confirm it) that too often, we in libraries put politics ahead of mission and service. By “politics,” I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured. 
Putting politics above mission and communities served is not so much a vendor issue as it is an "everything, everywhere in all workplaces" issue. In the context of library-vendor relations, I don't begrudge vendors profiting off the current state of scholarly communication, but there is a limit to those profits, as some vendors have realized. Even if all content were open access we would still need vendors to solve the coordination game of getting all this "stuff" in one, or a few places, making it as user-friendly as possible, for both patrons and library staff. There's plenty of value to be added by vendors even in the most utopian model.

Furthermore, politics is not just external, around the library, it's internal, within library departments, within a community. Vendors can and do benefit from the latter in the mad rush to allocate resources. The money I choose to spend on Discovery, for example, could go elsewhere. But it's going to a vendor. The allocation and distribution of scare resources, be they money, time, or staff, is politics. 

Keep in mind that this author is himself a library director, and has also written about what vendors and sales representatives should do before meeting with library staff, but does it look remotely equal to you? On which side of the equation does the money and staffing lie? Vendors can and should work harder, work more, and work better to serve libraries and library staff. I'm already on record as that library staff, especially fellow directors, should as well. Because we're the ones with two full-time employees. Not them. We all have responsibilities, but from where I sit, more of the onus is on them.

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